Why the Farm Bill Matters to You

A new farm bill could include an amendment with some alarming ramifications.

January 8, 2014


It can be really tough to relate to the Farm Bill, the federal government's main tool for food and agricultural policy. (Blech…just the word "policy" may make it seem boring!) But the truth is the Farm Bill impacts us in many ways everyday. And this week, select senators and representatives are in conference committee hashing out differences and hoping to put together a long overdue Farm Bill package so Congress can potentially vote on it later this month.


But the Farm Bill—particularly this one, the Farm Bill of 2014—currently includes some pretty alarming language that could drastically change the state of your food system while also promoting animal cruelty.

Major Food Threats
The "Protect Interstate Commerce Act," known as the King Amendment, introduced by Rep. Steve King (R–Iowa), is a majorly controversial amendment included with the House version of the bill.

"[King's] doing the bidding of big agribusiness, we think," says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch. "On lots of issues, we see states take action first. They often lead the way, change the policy, and make the requirement, especially with food." King's Amendment would potentially strip states of those rights.

The amendment is so controversial that 14 law professors reportedly drafted a letter late last year, describing the amendment as a major threat to food safety. They even said it might be considered unconstitutional.

It's not clear yet if this amendment will survive through the committee and land in the final version of the 2014 bill, but if it does, its broad, sweeping language could end the food system as we know it. Here's why: It could allow the federal government to override any state or local laws that impose higher standards or stipulations on foods produced in another state. That may not sound like a big deal, but it's opposed by more than 100 organizations representing many different viewpoints on worker safety, the environment, food safety, and animal welfare because it has the potential to knock down hundreds of existing food safety and animal welfare laws, according Michael Markarian, chief program and policy officer, the Humane Society of the United States.

"It's a sweeping, overreaching, radical provision that really has not had the proper scrutiny. No hearings, no real debate, and it's the kind of sweeping federal overreach that should be the subject of so much more scrutiny as to what the impacts would be when there's so much at stake for the states and for citizens," Markarian says.

For instance, in California, egg-laying hens must now be given more adequate living space—a major win for animal welfare advocates. The state legislature took that even further and in a few years will require any eggs sold in the state (including ones shipping in from other states) to come from hens that have better living conditions. The King Amendment, Markarian says, could knock down that important law. Depending on who you talk to (and how they interpret the vague language of the amendment), here are other ways the King Amendment could change the food system.

Some experts say it could:
• Block state and local governments from enacting bans on planting or even labeling genetically modified foods.
• Override animal welfare laws that require pregnant pigs space to turn around in their crates.
• End state laws that require imported livestock be tested for and free of tuberculosis.
• Nullify state or local laws that prohibit factory farms from being built around schools or drinking water sources.
• End local or state laws aimed at restricting pesticide drift.

There are gross-out factors, too. "The least-common-denominator approach with the King Amendment would mean that if any one state allows the sale of an agricultural product, that all states must allow it," says Markarian. "So if one state allows the sale of dog meat, then every state, arguably, would have to allow it. Horsemeat could be sold through interstate commerce."

More from Rodale News: The Truth about Your Eggs

"There's lots of talk in Congress about small government and states' rights and keeping Washington out of the affairs of state and local decision makers, and here you have the exact opposite," Markarian adds. "Where Washington, if it allows the king Amendment to be included, would be substituting its judgment for that of local leaders."

Other Labeling at Stake
While we're hearing a lot about the labeling of GMO foods lately, Lovera says the Farm Bill threatens another important type of labeling—country of origin labeling, known as COOL. In May 2013, the United States Department of Agriculture actually strengthened COOL rules, giving consumers more precise info about where their food comes from. That labeling upgrade, though, is under attack in the Farm Bill because the middlemen—grocery stores and meatpackers—don't want to deal with the labeling requirements, she says.

"We think country of origin labeling is the most basic piece of information that you can get about your food…where it comes from. People want to know that," says Lovera. "Maybe they're thinking about food miles, maybe they're not comfortable with food safety standards in another country…it's the most basic right-to-know issue."

Insurance Fraud?
When most people go out and shop for car insurance, they don't buy the most luxurious policy, because it costs a lot. They weight the risk against the cost to figure out what they need. That's not the case when it comes to crop insurance for farmers. A safety net designed more for huge commodity farmers, not your local small, sustainable farmer, crop insurance is subsidized by you, the U.S. taxpayer. So while crop insurance might not be on your radar, you're certainly paying for it.

A recent report commissioned by Environmental Working Group found that the heavily subsidized crop insurance program over-compensated Corn Belt farmers by $7.8 billion during the 2012 drought; insurance payouts of $6.2 billion would have been plenty to prop up corn and soybean farmers' revenue in that drought-plagued year, but actual payouts totaled $14 billion, according to calculations by Iowa State University economist Bruce Babcock.

How is this happening? Since taxpayers are footing much of the cost, industrial farmers go for high-end, expensive policies that over-insure them, explains Jason Rano, director of government affairs at Environmental Working Group. Taxpayers wind up subsidizing about 66 percent of those farmers' crop insurance premiums, Rano says.

Crop insurance is replacing direct-payment subsidies but the problem is most of this money isn't going to sustainable farmers, but rather to industrial farmers that use toxic pesticides and genetically engineered seeds. Farms are consolidating without limits, resulting in huge industrial farms that receive about $55,000 in crop insurance a year, on average. Smaller family farms who receive payments generally get about $5,000.

While crop insurance likely won't go away anytime soon, Babcock's report recommends two important and immediate steps to move toward a fiscally responsible farm safety net:

1. Eliminate proposed new crop insurance add-ons, such as the Supplemental Coverage Option, from the pending farm bill.

2. Scale back premium subsidies in the existing crop insurance program.
"Simply ending subsidies for the Revenue Protection policies that wildly inflate insurance payouts and reducing payments to companies by 30 percent would save enough money to fully fund SNAP and conservation programs," says Craig Cox, EWG's senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources.

More from Rodale News: Big Food Drafts GMO Labeling Law for Congress

And when crop insurance money is on the table, Rano says it's important that the farm bill of 2014 includes conservation requirements so farmers are required to protect delicate ecosystems (like wetlands) in order to receive payment.

Slashing Food Stamps
Many Americans of all ages (perhaps you or someone you know) rely on food stamps, now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to put food on the table, but the program is majorly under attack. The Washington Post reports the proposed bill includes $9 billion in cuts to the food stamp program over the next 10 years. Lovera says many conservatives are also working on Farm Bill language that would make it harder for poor people to obtain these benefits and keep them longer term.

Puppy Mills & Cockfighting
We've covered a lot of food issues, but there are more animal welfare issues at stake in this bill. Right now, it's illegal to import puppy mill dogs from other countries to sell in the U.S. Beyond that, many states and municipalities have rules against puppy mill breeding. If the King Amendment goes through with this Farm Bill, we could see a rise in puppy mills and all of the related cruelty that comes with them, Markarian warns. "Because some states consider dogs to be livestock, an agricultural product, laws dealing with puppy mills could be knocked out," he says.

On a positive note, there are provisions in the bill that could help end cruel practices like cockfighting and dogfighting. There's a provision that has been included in both the Senate and House versions that would strengthen animal-fighting statutes, making it a federal crime to be a spectator at an animal fight or to bring a child to an animal fight. That hits animal-fighting rings in the pocket hard, since it's spectators who pay admission fees and often engage in gambling. Right now, in some states like Alabama, the maximum fine for cockfighting is just $50, a slap on the wrist. The Farm Bill could make the federal law much more severe, hopefully deterring people from promoting animal-fighting operations and the drug trafficking, prostitution, and other illegal activities the activity often brings into communities, Markarian says.

The good news about all of this? The Farm Bill is not complete yet, and you still have time to call your federal senators and representatives to complain about things like the King Amendment. But don't wait long. Our sources say a Farm Bill package could come out of conference committee as early as Friday.